A wealthy but childless Roman couple, John and his wife decided to leave their fortune to the Church. They often prayed to the Virgin asking for guidance on how their wealth could be put to use. The Virgin appeared to them on the night of August 4th, 358 A.D. and told them that she wished a basilica to be constructed on the Esquiline Hill. She would miraculously leave snow in the middle of the hot month of August on the precise area in which she wanted the church. The next morning John and his wife and Pope Liberius went to the top of the Equiline Hill which had been covered with snow. Pope Liberius immediately called for the construction of the Basilica. St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) was completed in 360 A.D. Until 1969 the feast was known as Dedicatio Sanctæ Mariæ ad Nives (Dedication of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows), a name that had become popular for the Basilica in the fourteenth century in connection with a legend about its origin. Pope Sixtus III (432-40) decided to build a new and more magnificent structure near (if not on) the site of Liberius’ former Marian Church. In 1741, a congregation set up by Pope Benedict XIV proposed that the reading of the legend be removed from the Roman Breviary and that the original name, “Dedicatio Sanctæ Mariæ”, be restored. This recommendation was implemented only in 1969.
The monumental effect is due to the structure of the basilica and the harmony that reigns among the principal architectural elements. The basilica is divided into a nave and two side aisles by two rows of precious columns. Above these columns runs the skillfully wrought entablature, interrupted at the transept by the grand arches erected for the building of the Sistine and Pauline chapels. The area between the columns and the ceiling was once punctuated by large windows, half of which still remain, while the other half have been covered over by a wall. Over the walled windows, today one can admire frescos showing stories from the life of the Virgin. Above the window and frescos, a wooden frieze adorned with an exquisite inlay of cupid-like figures riding bulls unites the cornice with the ceiling. The bulls are the symbol of the Borgia family; and the coat of arms of Callixtus III and Alexander VI, the Borgia popes, stand out at the center of the ceiling. The coffered ceiling was designed by Giuliano Sangallo and later completed by his brother Antonio.
In the crypt under the high altar lies the celebrated relic known as the Holy Crib. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior.